LINCOLN — Through the first three quarters, it wasn’t smooth, pretty or easy for the Nebraska football team against Fresno State.
It wasn’t ever a laugher and it would be hard to imagine that Nebraska ever felt completely safe with its lead, which was never more than two possessions until the fourth quarter.
There were plenty of penalties and a few special teams miscues including a blocked punt.
On the flip side, the game didn’t involve any hail mary’s, late field goals or clock mismanagement or any other types heartbreak that became common place for the Huskers in head coach Mike Riley’s first year at the helm.
No, there wasn’t much for the 90,013 person crowd to get rowdy about for the majority of the contest, but Nebraska eventually came away with a 43-10 victory over Fresno State Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
“I have many mixed emotions about this game,” Riley said. “There was some good football, obviously. When you rush for that many yards you’re doing some pretty good things.
“Defensively, I thought we made a lot of good plays. The game gets cloudy for me when you get a punt blocked.”
Nebraska was dedicated to the run game to an extent most probably didn’t predict, as all but one scoring drive was fueled by a consistent ground attack.
Nebraska didn’t have a first-down pass attempt until there was 11:49 remaining in the game.
Nebraska rushed the ball 51 times for 292 yards, with just 10 pass attempts from quarterback Tommy Armstrong.
“I didn’t think it was going to be like that necessarily,” Riley said of the offense. “We know we want to run the ball.
“We think that has got to be a good part of the recipe of what we do all the time. I think that we have to be a little more versatile for the long spell of the season.”
The majority of the game was void of flash until the first play of the fourth quarter when Armstrong launched a 57-yard touchdown pass to Alonzo Moore, putting the Huskers up 28-10.
The longest play of the game was set up by junior safety Kieron Williams’ interception of Bulldog redshirt freshman quarterback Chason Virgil.
Armstrong had a 4-yard rushing touchdown later in the fourth quarter.
With the reserves in, running back Tre Bryant had a 3-yard run to cap a 10-play, 63-yard drive that featured backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe under center.
The run game was defined by variety for the Huskers in the win.
Devine Ozigbo had 17 carries for 103 yards and two scores, while starting back Terrell Newby had 11 carries for 56 yards.
“Right now, it’s a rotation. They’re both going to play,” Riley said. “Terrell is the starter and Devine comes in.
“As you can see, the other guys are good players too. We feel pretty good about our backs.”
Fresno State moved the ball quickly on its first possession, unlike Nebraska.
Virgil looked like comfortable in the pocket, completing his first five passes, all short range. His first bad pass came on third down to stall the drive in Nebraska territory.
Nebraska came away unscathed after Fresno State kicker Kody Kroening sent the kick wide right.
The Cornhuskers would not be denied so easily on their second possession, as they continued to run the ball on a 13-play, 80-yard drive to take the 7-0 lead with 43 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Ozigbo took it in from 1-yard out to cap off the march down field that featured 12 runs and one pass.
Ozigbo continued to make himself known on the ensuing Nebraska drive that started on the Bulldog 38-yard line thanks to a bounce on the punt the benefited the Huskers.
The Sachse, Texas, native carried the ball four more times and punched it in for his second score from 6-yards out.
While Nebraska declared its intent to run the ball, the Blackshirts made it so Fresno State couldn’t duplicate the rhythm they had on its first drive.
A sack on a corner blitz from Joshua Kalu and a run-stuffing play from Michael Rose-Ivey helped clinched back-to-back three-and-outs, respectively.
Fresno State caught its biggest break of the game when Robert Stanley blocked Caleb Lightbourn’s punt, setting up the Bulldogs the Nebraska 32-yard line.
Virgil continued to be fearless in the passing game, finding Aaron Peck for the 7-yard score in tight coverage to cut into the Nebraska lead.
On the ensuing Bulldog drive, Nebraska once again did its opponent a favor.
On a third-down play, Husker linebacker Luke Gifford was called for targeting on Virgil after he had thrown the ball away. The play injured Virgil for the remainder of the half, but revitalized the drive.
Sophomore safety Aaron Williams was also called for targeting on Fresno State’s last drive, but after review, the flag was picked up. Nebraska finished with seven penalties for 80 yards.
“I just think that we have to be better than that,” Riley said. “I thought we’d take a step forward with penalties and it didn’t feel like it. I thought we’d take a step forward with not lining up illegally and it didn’t feel like that. Fielding punts, we had some guys running into each other. That’s just sloppy.”
After Virgil’s injury, backup senior quarterback Zach Kline led the Bulldogs down the field complete a 10-play, 68-yard drive that resulted in a 28-yard field goal from Kroening to make it 14-10 heading into the break.
The Nebraska defense forced another three-and-out to start the second half, giving the offensive a chance to find the mojo it had in its two scoring drive.
Runs from Ozigbo, Newby and Jordan Westerkamp set up Armstong to use his speed and find the corner on a 9-yard touchdown run to cap Nebraska’s scoring before the 22-point fourth quarter.
Armstrong agreed with Riley that there were some things to clean up, specifically in the passing game.
“There was a bunch of miscommunication with myself and some of the guys,” he said. “The offensive line did a great job giving me time to complete passes but there were certain aspects of the game we need to be smarter. Overall, I think we ran the ball great in the second half. In the first half, we need to make sure we’re locked in.”
Fresno State finished with 274 total yards with two turnovers.
“I think they blew us up more than they have in the past,” Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter said. “We had a really tough time getting our run game started, and that’s tough.”
After Nebraska’s opening three-and-out, the Huskers lined up to punt with no punter in honor of senior punter and Grand Island native Sam Foltz, who died in a car accident in July.
Riley said the idea to line up that way were expressed separately by athletic director Shawn Eichorst and place kicker Drew Brown. Fresno State declined the penalty.
The emotional night featured Riley’s 100th college coaching win and his first winning record at Nebraska.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to win. We did some good things,” Riley said. “We rushed to close to 300 yards and that’s good to do. We didn’t turn the ball over. That’s a big leap from a year ago.”